July 4th, 2012 will mark the fifth anniversary of ribbonfarm. Now that I’ve completed a retrospective of five years worth of writing through the last month, I figured it was time to step back and put the whole thing together. Here’s the picture I came up with.
Before I give you a tour of SES Ribbonfarm (that’s “Slightly Evil Ship”), some housekeeping matters. I now have a glossary, which many of you asked for, and a For New Readers page. Links to both are on the menu bar. The latter contains links to the four roundups I did in June, as well as downloadable epubs and links to reading lists of the posts on readlists.com (you can use their app or send the lists to your Kindle or iPad).
If you’ve been reading ribbonfarm for more than a couple of years or two, and have useful thoughts for new readers, please post them as a comment on that page. This should also be a good page to point people to if you want to introduce them to ribbonfarm.
Now for the ship.
Touring the SES Ribbonfarm
Let’s start with the four containers. They map to the four curated lists I posted in June.
- The Art of Refactored Perception maps to intrapersonal realities. Stuff going on inside your head.
- Towards an Appreciative View of Technology maps to material realities. Stuff going on outside your head.
- Getting Ahead, Getting Along, Getting Away maps to interpersonal realities. Stuff going on between heads.
- The Mysteries of Money maps to social realities. Stuff many heads agree on.
Mastering all four domains will make you an enlightened and evolved superhuman like Elon Musk. Reading all this stuff will help you make really good excuses for why you are not like Elon Musk, and are wasting time reading blogs instead of saving the world.
In my last post, I mentioned that I hadn’t included two key posts in my roundups so far because they don’t really fit any of the main thematic clusters I had identified.
I’ve wondered off and on why these two posts have proved so important in defining this blog, so I figured now would be a good time to reflect.
The Gervais Principle
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with GP since I posted the first part in October 2009. For a long time, I was ambivalent about this series because I was concerned that I might get pigeonholed as the “office politics guy.” Or that it represented a peak of blogging serendipity that I might never hit again. For a while, I even treated it as a stepchild.
But now, 3 years, 4 sequels (with one more on the way) and one jumped-shark later, I’ve finally understood its place in the larger scheme of things, and made my peace with it. I now understand what GP means to me and why and how I came to write it. It took me much longer to figure that out than figuring out why others liked reading it.
The Gervais Principle is not just the Slashdotted post that made ribbonfarm mildly Internet-famous (hence its role as flag in the metaphor above). It is also intrinsically important to this blog. Because it sprawls rather illegibly across the four neater categories within which the other posts live (for the most part), and manages to simultaneously undermine and enrich them.
GP showed me that categorical views of reality are ultimately not to be taken seriously. They are scaffolding on the way to insight. When insight arrives, in whatever messy, flawed, incomplete, rough-edged, typo-ridden form, it disrupts the categorical landscapes of your mind. You then have a choice: stay attached to your categories, or let go of the categories and embrace the insight instead, as the start of something new. Platypii should make you question the validity and value of your schema. Schema should never lead you to doubt the existence of platypii.
GP helped reveal the intrinsic logic of both my own thinking, and the natural contours of the things I was thinking about. It was very meta. It refactored my perceptions of ribbonfarm itself.
The other post that has proved very important is A Big Little Idea Called Legibility. If GP is the post others reference most often, this is the post I myself reference most often.
Though the book and James Scott’s ideas are excellent, I think there is more to why they have proved so useful to me in particular.
Perception-refactoring is an addictive intellectual game of model-building, model-breaking and general messing around with models. It is creative destruction inside your head. When you play with models that are primarily constructed out of narratives, metaphors and neologisms, and much of the action is metaphysical rather than physical, you need a reliable way of testing your thinking.
The idea of legibility has become a sort of quality-assurance test for me.
- It helps me stay focused on information content of models rather than the models themselves.
- It helps me compare apples and oranges.
- It helps me become aware of what different models, narratives and metaphors highlight and hide.
- It helps me form judgments about what should be clarified further, what should be obscured (yes, there are sometimes reasons to obscure), and what should be left alone.
I don’t have room in this post to explain how the idea does all that, but trust me, it does. I might blog about it one day. For the perspective-refactorer, the idea of legibility is the primary intellectual tool where tools are scarce.
Defining and Being Defined by Blogging
Blogging has certainly defined me. More so than my for-pay work or education. There is something deeply depressing about admitting this.
Others are defined by substantial, real achievements: saving lives, winning wars, teaching kids, building stuff. Blogging doesn’t even have the limited dignity of book-writing.
It is too easy, too open to all, too free of the need for ascriptive valuation, too close to pure self-indulgence. To claim that you are defined by blogging is not very much better than saying that you are defined by eating. Anybody can do it.
And a lot of people do blog as an ancillary to far more important things. That can be a hard thought to face on gloomy days. I blog; Joe Blow blogs and runs a multimillion dollar company. Or saves lives in the operating room or restores period furniture or rescues kittens or something.
Yet, it is this very insubstantial nature of the medium that forces you to take a hard and honest look at what it means to create value. Ultimately, I think I am content to be defined by blogging. If I succeed at nothing else, it will still have been a meaningful life. Perhaps not an exciting, eventful or impactful one, but meaningful. Maybe I should have higher standards.
In some modest ways, I can also claim to have helped define blogging as a medium. In particular, I like to think I helped create an existence proof that bloggers:
- don’t need to “focus on a niche” and form mutual-admiration networks with other bloggers
- don’t need to publish content at a frantic pace of three posts a day
- don’t need to worry explicitly about “monetization” (god, I hate that word)
- don’t need to limit themselves to easily digested mind-candy nuggets of 300 words
- don’t need to be drive at an insane pace towards vanity metric milestones
- don’t need to pander to the lowest common denominator
- don’t need to treat what they do as thinly veiled marketing for other stuff
You can violate any and all those principles and still rise above the level of a self-indulgent personal journal.
I don’t know where the SES Ribbonfarm will go in the next five years. Or if it will last that long. Maybe blogging, which has been declared dead at least three times in the time I’ve been blogging, will finally die for real and I’ll have to find something else to do.
But so far, I haven’t hit an iceberg and the medium is surviving. We’ll see where we get by 2017. Thank you all for keeping me company so far.
With this post, I am finally done with 5 weeks of self-indulgent reflection. We’ll get back to regular programming next week.